The global success story that is the Premier League has had certain core drivers – money, slick marketing, talent, money, content, exposure, more money – and morphing from the monster have been particular phenomena. As Arsenal presented Mikel Arteta as their new manager on Friday evening, one of them felt particularly relevant. It is the personality cult of the manager.
Manager of English clubs have long been at the heart of the business, the person who makes the big decisions on the all-important technical side, and he has always had to face the media. But as the league’s profile has entered a different stratosphere, so the demands on him to explain his choices and, very often, those of his club have ramped up.
The English top-flight manager has become the de facto spokesman for the club because, very often, the executives prefer not to engage directly with the fans via the media and the arrangement is pronounced at Arsenal, where it is further heightened by the lack of access to the squad. When was the last time an Arsenal player was allowed to do an in-depth newspaper interview?
It has left the Arsenal manager, very often, as the only employee who speaks in public, attempting to meet the insatiable demand for insight, and it is hoped that he does so with a degree of polish. Which is fine when Arsène Wenger is in situ but less so when it is Unai Emery, whose removal last month set the wheels in motion for Arteta’s appointment.
Emery’s English was the subject of much mockery, which was unfair. The Spaniard did his level best to learn the language and, slowly, he was getting better. The issue, though, was his reluctance to engage with questions, whether in English or Spanish. Had he wanted to get his points across more lucidly in his native language via an interpreter – and there was one sitting alongside him throughout last season – it would have led to rejoicing among the press corps.
He preferred the straight bat, the no comment, the general platitudes and, if it frequently led to confusion, the bottom line was that he came across as dull and boring. His media conferences were must-not-see events, numbers dwindled and the hard truth was that Arsenal slipped off the news agenda.
Does this matter? At Wolves, for example, Nuno Espírito Santo is not noted for his loquaciousness in front of the media and yet he is loved by the fans and the club is upwardly mobile. Meanwhile nobody was complaining about Emery’s communication skills at the beginning of his Arsenal tenure when the team went on a 22-match unbeaten run. Results, plainly, are the primary determiner of a club’s mood.
But, on a more micro level, yes, this does matter. If a big club is not relevant in news terms, it is no great leap to see that its visibility and prestige can be affected, together with the energy around the place; the creative tensions. Players take their lead from the manager; how he connects with them, motivates and fires the wider atmosphere at the club. An inspirational orator can set the right tone, driving a feel-good factor when results are good; offering soothing assurance when they are not. Positive PR brings added edge.
Arteta made the point during his unveiling that “every act is important,” every little detail and he made it clear that every small word could contribute to his overall goal, which is to lead Arsenal back into the Champions League and have them competing for trophies.
It was a command performance from Arteta, the antidote to the tedium of Emery and, time and again, he returned to his key themes – the need to change the culture and collective mentality, which he plainly believes has been a problem for years; to breathe positive energy into every pore of the club. In many respects he sounded like his friend and former Paris Saint-Germain teammate, Mauricio Pochettino, who has recently left Tottenham after overseeing a transformation of the club. Pochettino’s obsession with the concept of universal energy is well-documented.
Arteta’s personality, and the force of it, was in full view as he moved from the TV cameras to a briefing with the written media, and there were moments of schmaltz when he talked of how it was a dream to be “back home,” the promise to “burn every drop of blood for this football club to make it better,” and how “it’s difficult to say no when Arsenal knocks on my door”.
But it was the rallying cries that rang out; the clarity of his vision and a certain ruthlessness, too, which those who know him say has always been a part of his make-up and he believes has been finessed by working under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. To the players that buy into his methods, there will be possibility; to those that do not, there will be the exit door. Arteta intends to lead by words and deeds; to fashion a new identity out of the rubble of the Emery era and to win the trust of the players, who will then follow him.
The mind went back to Emery’s media presentation at the Emirates Stadium in May 2018, which was an altogether more stilted affair. “We want to be protoganists,” Emery had said. Little else has stood the test of time.
Arteta’s soundbites were deeper and more expansive; from the heart and more natural. It was a performance that added up to a reference point, not only in his career but for his new players. Arteta knows Arsenal and the club’s issues, having felt them from the inside as a player and watched them from the outside at City. Have they lost their way? “That’s what I’m sensing,” he said at one point. How Arteta means to lead them to better times will be underscored by his charisma.